Monday, June 23, 2014


From historian Paul Kennedy's 1987 book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers:

The task facing American statesmen over the next decades, therefore, is to recognize that broad trends are under way, and that there is a need to 'manage' affairs so that the relative erosion of the United States' position takes place slowly and smoothly, and is not accelerated by policies which bring merely short-term advantage but longer-term disadvantage.  This involves, from the president's office downward, an appreciation that technological and therefore socioeconomic change is occurring in the world faster than ever before; that the international community is much more politically and culturally diverse than has been assumed, and is defiant of simplistic remedies offered either by Washington or Moscow to its problems; that the economic and productive power balances are no longer as favorably tilted in the United States' direction as in 1945; and that, even in the military realm, there are signs of a certain redistribution of the balances, away from a bipolar to more of a multipolar system, in which the conglomeration of American economic-cum-military strength is likely to remain larger than that possessed by any one of the others individually, but will not be as disproportionate as in the decades which immediately followed the Second World War.  This, in itself, is not a bad thing if one recalls Kissinger's observations about the disadvantages of carrying out policies in what is always seen to be a bipolar world; and it may seem still less of a bad thing when it is recognized how much more Russia may be affected by the changing dynamics of world power.  In all of the discussions about the erosion of American leadership, it needs to be repeated again and again that the decline referred to is relative not absolute, and is therefore perfectly natural; and that the only serious threat to the real interests of the United States can come from a failure to adjust sensibly to the newer world order.

Back when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, a good friend of mine told me how he had heard of a historian who not only predicted the USSR's downfall, but who also said that the same thing would happen to the US, as well.  We never really got back to that brief discussion, which meant that I ended up spending the next quarter century or so wondering
from time to time about this historian--who is he, and what else did he have to say about this?  Finally, last year, watching a Bill Moyers episode on PBS, I got what appeared to be a lead when a guest mentioned Kennedy's book.  So I put it on the Christmas list, and, once I got it, started reading slowly over the next few months.  Now I'm done.

It's a great book.  But if it's the same historian my buddy mentioned back in the day, and I think he may very well be, he didn't quite predict the downfall of the US or the Soviet Union.  He did, however, lay out pretty convincingly the long-term problems both nations were facing at the time, and it's fair to say that the USSR fell for precisely the reasons he lists: longstanding and widespread economic weaknesses vis-à-vis unsustainable military commitments.  That he got it so right with Russia makes me think we ought to listen very closely to what he said about the US.

Kennedy summarizes very nicely in the excerpt above what he had to say about the problems facing America twenty five years ago.  Sadly, in deep hindsight, it appears we're definitely following the path our former Cold War adversaries took back then.  That is, we're trapped in a mode of thinking which no longer applies to our current circumstances.

Kennedy's book studies the Great Powers from the 1500s through the late twentieth century.  Once you get a ways into it, a dominant theme arises.  Again and again, various nations manage to get themselves on top of the heap for various reasons, which generally revolve around finding ways to use economic resources in ways other nations haven't, and then leveraging that economic strength into military power, which is then leveraged into more economic strength.  Ultimately, however, the circumstances which allow a given nation to dominate will change, usually leaving that nation stuck in a system and way of thinking that make perfect sense when first adopted, but become a massive burden once things change.  Spain, the Netherlands, Great Britain, Austria-Hungary, all of them developed structures and mind sets which served them well for many years.  But they just couldn't change when they had to do so, perhaps prisoners of their own success, perhaps because they just couldn't relinquish their own visions of grandeur.  Either way, it always meant losing the number one spot, sometimes falling into obscurity, like Austria-Hungary, other times falling back into simply being a great, but not the greatest, power, like the UK.

That's exactly where we are as a nation right now.  We are in a long term decline relative to the rest of the world.  There can be no doubt about it.  The only question is what kind of decline we're having.  And it's not looking too bright.

I step back and listen to the overall babble comprising what passes for our national discourse.  I hear a nation, or at least its ruling class, that appears to believe we're still in the immediate post WWII period.  A nation that still wants to fight the Nazis or the Russians.  A nation believing it is "the greatest nation in the world," one that seems to proclaim its greatness to assure itself more than anyone else.  A nation stuck in a crazed laissez-faire approach to economics that doesn't seem to be embraced so much by its economic competitors.  In short, as a nation, we seem to be avoiding our problems as much as we possibly can, instead of facing them head on and trying to do something about them.

No, conservatives, I'm not talking about the deficit or social spending.  The budget is manageable, if we don't keep resorting to psychotic political brinksmanship, and we should be increasing social spending, if anything.  Instead, I'm talking about a bloated military we don't need, to fight an enemy that doesn't exist.  I'm talking about how we think we ought to run the world, and our willingness to enforce our views, instead of a healthier and sustainable willingness to participate and lead by example.  I'm talking about creating an economy where prosperity is shared by all instead of by the very few, you know, what we have now, which will make us much more like Haiti over the long term than what we imagine when we contemplate the "American Dream."

In short, we're just not having the right conversation.  We're stuck in the conversation started by our great grandparents, which has very little to do with today's circumstances.  We are not in the middle of the twentieth century, and we need to start acting like it.  We need to let go of the slogans and start reacting to the world as it is, not to the world that we have invented in our imaginations. 

If we really are "the greatest nation in the world," then we will sit down and have a mature and intelligent discussion about what we should do and where we should go as a people.  That we are not doing so tells me it's very likely we are NOT the greatest nation in the world.  And that makes me sad.